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Old 03-21-2008, 04:46 PM   #1
Tom Phillips*
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Location: Santa Clara, California, USA - - R.I.P. - 1954-2012
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Default Geese Dyed to See Where They Fly (November 1987 Story)

Geese Dyed to See Where They Fly

Published: November 8, 1987

More than the foliage is changing color in Delaware this autumn.

The plumage of 500 snow geese is turning from white to vivid yellow under the paintbrush strokes of wildlife specialists at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge about 15 miles northeast of here.

It's part of a program to plot and perhaps alter the feeding habits of the tens of thousands of snow geese that stop in Delaware in their annual migration along the Atlantic coast.

More and more snow geese are choosing to spend the entire winter in the protected salt marshes that border Delaware Bay. ''They sit here fat and happy and eat out a whole area of marsh,'' said Charles A. Pelizza, assistant manager of the refuge. The Pickings Are Good

Since the refuge is in a major agricultural area, the geese have plenty to eat.

Thomas W. Whittendale Jr., a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, says he has seen the birds having breakfast in Delaware, flying to Maryland for lunch and returning to Delaware for an evening snack.

Mr. Pelizza estimated that the ''snows'' have nibbled their way through 1,000 acres of vegetation on the 15,000-acre refuge. Unlike other waterfowl, but much like sheep that overgraze pastureland, snow geese forage through to the roots, leaving the ground bare and in danger of erosion.

As recently as a decade ago, only 4,000 to 5,000 snow geese wintered at the refuge, operated by the Federal Department of Fish and Wildlife. Last week Mr. Pelizza estimated the snow goose population at 75,000. Counting From an Airplane

It is not clear why so many more geese are staying instead of heading south. Perhaps they have simply figured out, as have hundreds of thousands of other waterfowl across the Northeast, that there is plenty of shelter and food north of the Mason-Dixon Line even in the cold months.

Mr. Whittendale is Delaware's waterfowl census-taker, and he usually counts snow geese from an airplane.

The snow geese are among an estimated 300,000 migrating waterfowl who travel the Atlantic Flyway, sometimes crossing flight paths with the world's largest aircraft, the C5-A Galaxy, landing and taking off from nearby Dover Air Force Base.

After about 60 snow geese were sucked into two fanjets, causing a forced landing and millions of dollars in damage to a C-5A a few years ago, the airbase began using special radar to track the migrating intruders in its airspace. Flight Schedules Changed

Though a seven-pound snow goose would not seem to be a match for a 700,000-pound airplane, the Air Force has often changed the schedules and routes of the Galaxies and says it expects to avoid millions of dollars in damages.

In an effort to disperse the pesky birds this year, the refuge officials permitted a special hunting season in mid-October, two weeks ahead of the regular Delaware waterfowl season.

The idea was not so much to kill off the snow geese, but to scatter the flock to other feeding areas where the vegetation would not be as adversely affected, Mr. Pelizza explained.

And that's where the paint job came in. To determine which birds fled the refuge and where they went, the wildlife people decided to paint 500 birds with a permanent dye and track their movements. Geese Are Gregarious

Bait corn is put out and while the birds feed, large nets are rocket-propelled across the flock.

''Snow geese are a pretty gregarious lot,'' said Mr. Pelizza. ''As long as they stay together in a group they're pretty cooperative and don't put up much of a fight.''

When the Federal wildlife staff succeeded in netting about 100 birds one recent evening, they called for assistance from the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to help with the painting chores.

About 20 volunteers gathered at the refuge the next morning armed with paintbrushes and pails of ''paint,'' actually an iridescent yellow mixture of picric acid and alcohol. Metal Bands Attached

The puzzled birds were first examined to determine their sex and age and had identifying metal bands applied to their legs. Then, while two attendants held down flapping wings and feet, a third applied the yellow mixture with a large brush. Aside from a few ruffled feathers, the birds appeared none the worse for wear as they preened and waited in a large holding cage to be released as a flock later in the day.

The birds sporting the new yellow plumage were readily assimilated without prejudice by the rest of the snow geese, said Mr. Pelizza.

Early reports indicate that hunters are driving off at least a portion of the snow geese population.

The wildlife specialists are asking citizens to report sightings of any large yellow birds to assist in evaluating success of the program.

The dye job is harmless to the geese, say the waterfowl experts. It also is permanent - that is, until the birds shed their feathers in the spring.

Tracking the geese is important, said Mr. Whittendale. ''We need to make sure we are not just resolving a problem in one area to create it in another,'' he said.
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